Many would recognise Sierra Leone as the home of extreme poverty, blood diamonds, civil war and of course, the deadly Ebola virus. According to the UN, the country has the worst infant mortality rate in the world and was last year ranked as the eighth least livable place.
But Australian aid worker and fashion blogger Jo Dunlop has been seeing the small West African nation through a different lens. In her documentary series Freetown Fashpack, she explores the unexpectedly vibrant and dynamic fashion scene in Freetown, a city she has called home since 2011.
“It was just a really good way of showing a different side to a place that people have probably quite negative preconceived ideas about,” she says. “What’s so great is that people are very surprised by it. It’s really nice to show people the Sierra Leone that I experienced.”
Style savvy residents of the 500,000-strong city head to second hand clothes markets known as “The Junks” where they can purchase an assortment of items donated from international charity agencies. Tailors are a common sight on the local streets and alter many of the clothes to fit the unique vision and taste of their client. Ms Dunlop thinks this colourful and very creative approach to fashion has in part evolved out of the people’s traditional way of dressing.
“The traditional clothes of West Africa are so colourful and bright and there’s a real culture of tailoring and people take a real pride in their appearance in a very different way to what they do here in Australia,” she explains. “But I also think that Sierra Leoneans can be quite bold and brave in the way they express themselves, they’re not afraid to take risks. There’s something very inherent in the way that they dress, they don’t want to dress like their friends they want to look different, they want to look individual.”
She adds, “It’s also an expression of their resilience and their resourcefulness, it is a country with nothing in terms of material resources, but the people just have so much spirit and it’s really expressed in the way they put their outfits together each morning.”
First creating a blog and then her six-part series, Ms Dunlop was inspired to share her experience after noticing the “very flamboyant and very unique way of dressing” that was unlike anything back home in Australia.
“I first noticed it in the office that I worked at, we had ‘Africana Friday’ and some of the fashion that my colleagues were wearing was so wonderful I just felt like I needed to photograph it,” she says. “And then I started noticing that kind of style on the street and soon enough I had a collection of photos and I thought I needed to show people and so I started the blog.”
Even while gripped by the Ebola crisis –that claimed the lives of close to 4,000 people in Sierra Leone – this bright way of dressing found a way to break through the darkness. “Africana [hospital] scrubs became very popular; there were so many health workers and so many people working in hospitals, not just health workers but cleaners and surveillance officers and burial teams and people had to wear scrubs a lot of the time,” she says.
“The easiest and cheapest way to make scrubs locally was with Africana fabrics so you had all these medics wearing Africana fabrics in their day to day jobs which was so wonderful in this time that was very grim and very dark.” In her series, which is available on ABC iView, Ms Dunlop follows a host of individuals and tells their stories of resilience and hope through fashion.